Eating and drinking in Cambodia
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Many Cambodian dishes are variations on food from other Asian countries, especially China, on which Khmer cuisine draws heavily. Cambodian food isn’t particularly spicy, although it’s often delicately flavoured with herbs such as lemongrass and coriander.
Food is traditionally cooked in a single pot or wok over a charcoal stove; although gas burners are being introduced in the cities, many people prize the smoky flavour that food acquires when it’s cooked over charcoal. A lot of dishes are fried in palm oil and aren’t drained before serving, so can be quite greasy; if you’re vegetarian it’s worth being aware that the pan is seldom washed out between cooking the meat and vegetable dishes.
As in many countries where rice is the staple food, the most common way to refer to eating in Cambodia is nyam bai, literally “eat rice”.
The cheapest food in Cambodia (around $0.50–1.50) is available from street hawkers, who ply the streets with their handcarts or baskets dangling from a shoulder pole loaded up with offerings ranging from fried noodles and baguettes, which you can enjoy from as little as $0.50, through to fresh fruit and ice cream. The country’s markets are another good source of cheap food, open both day and night (though often in separate locations) and with stalls selling a variety of dishes and desserts at prices only slightly higher than those charged by street hawkers. Each stall usually has its own speciality, and you can order from any stall in the market irrespective of where you’re sitting. When you’ve finished, you pay the stall closest to you for the whole lot and they’ll sort out the money among themselves.
Noodle shops and cheap restaurants can be found all over town centres and are especially plentiful around markets and transport stops. Noodle shops (haang geautieuv) open around 5.30am for the breakfast trade, serving various noodle soups, along with dumplings and rice porridge in the larger establishments. By 9/10am they turn into coffee shops, serving hot and cold coffee and tea, as well as soft drinks and fresh coconuts, until they close at around 4/5pm.
Cheap restaurants (haang bai) are recognizable by a row of pots set out on a table out front, containing the day’s food – not dissimilar to Cambodian home cooking. To find out what’s on offer, lift the lids and peer inside; the dishes you have chosen will be served to you in separate bowls along with a plate of rice. Food in these places is not only pretty decent but also invariably good value at around $1–1.50 per portion – similar in price to eating at a market stall – inclusive of rice and iced tea, a jug of which is kept replenished at the table.
Tourist restaurants across the country serve up a generic range of international cuisine – pizzas, pasta, burgers, salads, sandwiches and simple grilled meat and fish dishes, all executed with varying levels of authenticity and success. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap also have a decent range of more upmarket restaurants specializing in French, Italian, Indian, Thai, Japanese and other leading international cuisines. At the other end of the scale, eating possibilities in smaller towns and rural areas can be quite restricted, and in the evenings you may be hard pushed to find anything more than a bowl of instant noodles.
Khmers tend to eat early by Western standards. In the provinces, especially, don’t expect to find anywhere open after 9pm, and some places close even earlier.
In general, there’s no need to book in advance, even to eat at expensive restaurants – although we’ve given telephone numbers throughout the Guide, so you could choose to call ahead during busy periods for popular spots.
Many Cambodian dishes are variations on Chinese equivalents and are stir-fried in a wok to order. Just about any combination of ingredients can be ordered: chicken, pork or frogs’ legs might be stir-fried with ginger, spring onions and garlic; prawn or chicken with basil leaves. Rice or noodles can themselves be stir-fried with chopped pork, beef, crab or vegetables, with an egg scrambled in or fried and served on top. Stir-fried sweet-and-sour dishes are also available, usually made with fish or pork – though you can ask for a vegetarian version – and flavoured with a combination of ingredients including pineapple, onion and either green or red tomatoes.
Stews and curries are often available at market stalls and cheap restaurants. Cambodian stews are usually based on a light stock (with beef or fish), complemented by bitter gourd or field melon; it’s not unusual for them to contain hard-boiled eggs. Curries, usually made with beef, are only mildly spicy and generally quite dry.
Smoky, charcoal-grilled chicken and fish are available everywhere from roadside stalls to restaurants: fish is served with a dip of grated green mango, chilli, garlic and fish sauce; chicken with salad garnish and a sweet chilli sauce.
Khmer cuisine features two kinds of soup: somlar, freshly prepared to order and cooked quickly, and sop, based on a stock that has been simmering for a while. One of the commonest soups on restaurant menus is somlar jerooet, a clear soup made from either chicken or fish and cooked with coconut, lemongrass and chives.
For breakfast, Cambodians often eat rice with either fried chicken or fried pork, served with sliced cucumber and pickled vegetables, and a side bowl of clear soup. Also popular in the mornings is geautieuv sop, rice noodles in a clear broth with chicken, pork or beef pieces; you might wish to decline the other ingredients, namely sliced-up intestines or gizzard and a chunk of congealed blood, which the Khmers slurp with relish, as it’s said to make you strong. A dish of bean sprouts and a slice of lime will be provided on the side, which you can add to taste.
In the tourist centres Western breakfasts are available in guesthouses, hotels, cafés and restaurants catering for tourists and expats. In the provinces it’s usually difficult to find anything other than Khmer food first thing in the morning.
Cambodian snack foods are legion, the range varying with the time of day. Eaten with breakfast or as an afternoon snack, available from street vendors and at restaurants, noam bpaow are steamed dumplings, originating from Chinese cuisine, made from white dough filled with a mix of minced pork, turnip, egg and chives. There’s a second, less common version, smaller and sweeter and filled with a green mung-bean paste.
In the afternoon and evening, crusty baguettes, filled with your choice of pâté or sardines and pickled vegetables, can be bought from street hawkers for around 2000 riel.
Bany chaev are savoury wok-fried pancakes commonly available at market stalls; they’re made from rice flour flecked with chives and coloured vivid yellow using turmeric. Filled with fried minced pork, onion, prawns and bean sprouts, they’re eaten by wrapping pieces of the pancake in a lettuce leaf and dipping them in a fish sauce mixed with garlic, lemon and crushed peanuts.
Steamed or grilled eggs are incredibly popular and are available everywhere, most commonly from street hawkers, night markets and at transport stops – where you’ll often get a choice of eggs, with bite-sized quails’ eggs easy to find. The black “thousand-year eggs” that you see at markets and food stalls are duck eggs that have been stored in jars of salt until the shells turn black; by that time the whites and the yolks have turned into a jelly, not dissimilar in texture to soft-boiled eggs. They are eaten with rice or borbor, a soupçon of egg being taken with each spoonful of rice.
Often found at night markets or served up with beer is pong dteer gowne, literally ducks’ eggs with duckling. Said to give strength and good health, it really does contain an unhatched duckling, boiled and served with herbs and a sauce of salt, pepper and lemon juice – not too bad if you don’t look too closely at what you’re eating.
Cooked bananas are also widely eaten as snacks, seasoned with salt and grilled over charcoal braziers, or wok-fried in a batter containing sesame seeds, which are at their most delicious when they’re piping hot. Both are available in the markets, as are noam ensaum jayk, sweet sticky-rice parcels in different shapes, such as pyramids or rolls, containing a piece of banana and wrapped in banana leaves.
Among the more unusual snacks is the much-prized grolan, bamboo tubes containing a delicious mix of sticky rice, coconut milk and black beans, cooked over charcoal and sold bundled together by hawkers (usually in the provinces). The woody outer layer of the bamboo is removed after cooking, leaving a thin shell that you peel down to get at the contents. Seasonally available are chook, the cone-shaped, green seeds of the lotus flower, sold in bundles of three or five heads; to eat, pop the seeds out from the green rubbery pod, peel off their outer skins and consume the insides, which taste a bit like garden peas.
No Cambodian meal is complete without a variety of accompaniments. One of the most prized of these is prohok, a salted, fermented fish paste that looks like a pinkish pâté and has an incredibly strong anchovy-like taste. A dollop is served on a plate with raw vegetables, gee and edible flowers; it’s eaten either by adding a tiny amount to the accompanying vegetables or by taking a morsel with a spoonful of rice. Prohok isn’t usually found on the menus of classy restaurants but is always available at market stalls and in Cambodian homes.
Though it’s less pungent than prohok, fish sauce is still pretty smelly. Used as a dip with every type of food, it’s made from both salt- and freshwater fish, which are layered with salt in large vats; as the fish ferments the juice is extracted from the bottom and bottled.
Other accompaniments include dips of chilli sauce and soy sauce – to which you can add chopped chillies and garlic – which are either left in pots on the table or served in individual saucers.
Besides boiled rice, Cambodians enjoy rice cooked up as a porridge called borbor, usually available at market stalls, night markets and in some cheap restaurants, either as breakfast or an evening dish. Borbor can either be left unseasoned and used as a base to which you add your own ingredients – dried fish, pickles, salted egg or fried vegetables – or cooked in stock, with pieces of chicken, fish or pork and bean sprouts added before serving. Shredded ginger, a squeeze of lime and spicy soya-bean paste from pots at the table can also be added to taste.
White rice-flour noodles, geautiev (pronounced “goy teal”), are available in different shapes and sizes – in fine threads for noodle soup, or wide and thick for use in nom bany jowk. The latter is sold by female street vendors from baskets dangling on shoulder poles and consists of noodles served cold with a lukewarm curry sauce over the top. Yellow egg noodles – mee – made from wheat flour are used in soups and stir-fries. Freshly made mee – called mee kilo because it’s sold by weight – are available in the major towns, though elsewhere people make do with instant noodles imported in packets from Thailand and Vietnam. Loat chat, a hollow noodle similar to macaroni, is fried up by hawkers using hand-carts equipped with charcoal burners.
Meat is comparatively expensive and is invariably cut into small pieces and mixed with plenty of vegetables. Pork is commonly available, attested to by the number of pigs wandering around even the smallest village, but beef is more difficult to obtain as cows are prized as work animals and not necessarily killed for food. The best beef is available in large towns; elsewhere it’s often tough and chewy (in Western restaurants it is generally imported).
Not so much a soup as a meal in itself, sop chhnang day is a bit like a fondue: a clay pot of hot stock and meatballs is brought to the table and placed on a small burner in the middle. Once the soup is boiling you add a selection of ingredients to the pot according to taste, choosing from side plates featuring slices of raw beef (or venison), often mixed with raw egg prior to cooking; sprigs of herbs; various vegetables; yellow and white noodles; tofu; dried sheets of soya bean (which looks a bit like chicken skin); and mushrooms. Both the stock and the dishes are replenished as long as you keep on eating, and at the end of the meal the bill is calculated according to the number of side plates on the table. Restaurants specializing in sop chhnang day often display a sign outside depicting a steaming pan over a burner.
Another Cambodian favourite is sait gow ang, beef grilled over a small charcoal burner at the table. Nibbled with pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, it tends to be eaten as an evening snack to accompany drinking. Similar in style but more of a meal is chhnang phnom pleung, “volcano pot”, so named because the burner is said to resemble a volcano in appearance; the beef (venison is also used) comes to the table ready sliced, with a raw egg stirred into the meat before cooking. It’s accompanied by side dishes of raw vegetables such as green tomatoes, capsicum and salad greens. Once you’ve grilled the meat and vegetables to your taste, they’re wrapped in a salad leaf and dipped in a sauce before being eaten.
Typically found at cheap restaurants, kaar is a stew usually made with pig’s trotters and green cabbage (it can also be made with fish or bamboo shoots) and eaten with unseasoned rice porridge (borbor). Pork is the usual ingredient in spring rolls (though Vietnamese restaurants especially may do a vegetarian version as an appetizer); they’re either steamed or fried and then rolled up in a lettuce leaf with sliced cucumber, bean sprouts and herbs, and eaten dipped in a sweet chilli sauce.
Chicken and duck in Cambodia often have a high bone-to-flesh ratio; except in tourist restaurants, the whole carcass is chopped up, which means you have to pick out the bones from each mouthful. Worth looking out for is baked chicken (sait mowan dot), cooked in a metal pot in a wood-fired oven and really tasty. It’s usually prepared to order, so there is quite a wait involved. Also worth trying is the refreshing somlar ngam ngouw, a clear lemon broth flavoured with pickled limes and herbs.
Fish is plentiful and the main source of protein for most Cambodians. Near the Tonle Sap lake there’s a particularly good choice of freshwater varieties, and sea fish is plentiful along the coast, though inland it’s only readily available in the specialist (and inevitably expensive) restaurants of Phnom Penh.
Fish is served up in all manner of ways – grilled, fried, in soups and stews. Popular in tourist areas is amok, a mild Cambodian-style fish curry (chicken is also used); the fish is mixed with coconut milk and seasonings and baked wrapped in banana leaves (or sometimes cooked in the shell of a young coconut).
Dried fish is a particular favourite. Much prized for sun-drying are large freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap, which are sliced lengthwise like kippers and grilled over charcoal, to be eaten with rice. When fish is cheap you’ll see people drying their own in baskets outside their houses.
Cambodia’s markets offer up a wide range of vegetables, some of which will be unfamiliar, all delivered fresh daily. Regrettably, you won’t come across many of these on restaurant menus, though one unusual vegetable you will find in restaurants is morning glory (trokooen), a water plant with a thick, hollow stem and elongated heart-shaped leaves, which are carefully removed prior to cooking; it’s often served stir-fried with garlic and oyster sauce, and tastes a bit like spinach.
Fried mixed vegetables are ubiquitous in Khmer restaurants, the constituents varying according to what’s available (in some establishments you may be able to choose from a selection). Green tomatoes, crisp and refreshing, are often added to this and other dishes; red ones are only available in limited quantities for special recipes. For a decent selection of vegetable dishes, though, you’ll need to try the Chinese restaurants. At street stalls and in the markets you’ll find noam gachiey, best described as chive burgers. Made from rice flour, chives and herbs, they’re steamed or fried, and dished up with either a sweet sauce (based on fish sauce) or soy sauce.
Gee is the generic Cambodian term for all manner of herbs, used in cooking, served up by the plateful to be eaten on the side, or taken medicinally. You’ll probably only recognize a few, such as mint and coriander; others include various types of water grass, vines and young tree leaves.
Pickles made with brine are frequently served in Cambodia as an appetizer or a side dish, and as a filling for baguettes. There are many variations, made from combinations of cabbage, cucumber, ginger, turnip, bamboo shoots, onions and bean sprouts, often sculpted into shapes for extra visual appeal. Green mango salad (chruok svay), made from shredded green mango, dried shrimp and fish paste topped with crushed peanut, is served up in restaurants, to be eaten as a starter or snack.
Specialist stalls, opening around lunchtime in the markets or in the late afternoon and evening along the street, serve Cambodian desserts in a vast range of colours and textures. Small custards, jellies and sticky-rice confections are displayed in large flat trays and cut or shaped into bite-sized pieces to be served in bowls, topped with grated ice and a slug of condensed milk; mixes of dried and crystallized fruits, beans and nuts are also on offer, served with ice and syrup. Other desserts include sweet sticky rice mixed with corn kernels, mung beans or lotus seed, poached pumpkin with syrup, and palm fruit with syrup, all of which are served up from large bowls by market stalls.
Khmer restaurants seldom serve desserts other than fresh fruit, though recently a few upmarket places are starting to offer them along with imported ice creams. Towns generally have a bakery or two producing a variety of cakes, many of which are approximations of familiar Western goodies. Market stalls in all towns sell small, freshly baked sponge cakes.
Colourful fruit stalls can be found everywhere in Cambodia, and the selection is enormous – stallholders will always let you try before you buy if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Imported apples, pears and grapes are also available, though comparatively expensive.
Bananas come in several varieties, some of which are seldom seen in the West; they’re grown just about everywhere, and are sold in huge quantities – cheaply, at around 1000 riel a bunch – for snacking, cooking and as offerings for the pagoda. Commonest are jayk oumvong, which is slender and stays green when ripe; jayk numvar, a medium-sized, plump, yellow banana, said to cool the body; and the finger-sized, very sweet jayk pong mowan, said to be warming, which is a little pricier than the other kinds. Relatively rare are the large, dry and fibrous red or green bananas, generally used for cooking.
The durian (tooren) is a rugby-ball-sized fruit with a hard, spiky exterior. Much sought after by Khmers, it’s an acquired taste for most Westerners thanks to its fetid smell (often compared to that of a blocked drain). Inside are several segments, each containing two or three stones surrounded by pale yellow, creamy textured flesh, which can be quite addictive once you’ve got over the odour.
Longans (meeyan) have a long season and are often sold still on the twig. The cherry-sized fruit have a hard brown skin; the flesh inside is similar to that of lychees in texture and flavour. Bright green and prickly skinned, soursops (tee-ab barang) are pure white inside and have a tart but sweet taste. Hard, round and a bit like a bright-green cricket ball, guavas (troubike) have a crunchy, dry texture a bit like a hard pear. The flat brown pods of tamarind (umpbel) are simple to eat: split open the pods and discard the fibrous thread inside, then suck off the rich brown tangy flesh, minding the hard seeds. The most picturesque of Khmer fruits, though, has to be the rosy pink dragon fruit (pelai sroegar ne-yak), grown on a climbing cactus-like vine. Inside its waxy skin, the moist, pure-white flesh is dotted with black seeds and has quite a subtle taste, verging on bland.
Bottled water is found everywhere, as Cambodian tap water isn’t considered safe to drink. Be aware that the ice that is invariably added to cold drinks (unless you request otherwise) may not be hygienic except in Western restaurants.
Cambodians drink plenty of green tea, which is readily available in coffee shops and from market stalls; it’s normally served free of charge with food in restaurants. If you like your tea strong, try dtai grolab, made by putting water and a mass of tea leaves into a small glass, placing a saucer on top, and turning the whole thing upside down to brew. When it’s dark enough, the tea is decanted into another cup and plenty of sugar added, but no milk. Lemon tea (dtai gdouw kroit chhmar), made with Chinese red-dust tea and lemon juice, is refreshing both hot and iced, and is generally served with a hefty dose of sugar. Black tea, sold locally under the Lipton brand, is served in hotels, guesthouses and restaurants that cater to foreigners.
Noodle shops, coffee shops and restaurants serve coffee from early morning to late afternoon, but in the evenings it can be difficult to find except at restaurants geared up for foreigners. The beans are generally imported from Laos and Vietnam – although domestically produced coffee from Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri can be found in some places. Beans are traditionally roasted with butter and sugar, plus various other ingredients that might include anything from rum to pork fat, giving the beverage a strange, sometimes faintly chocolatey aroma – something of an acquired taste. Black coffee (kafei kmaow) will often be served with sugar unless you specify otherwise and is often served (and generally tastes better) iced (kafei kmaow tuk kork). Cambodians often have their coffee or tea iced, even for breakfast; if you want yours hot, ask for it to be served without ice (ot dak tuk kork).
Note that if you order white coffee (kafei tuk duh gow), it sometimes comes with a slug of condensed milk already in the glass, so don’t stir it all in if you don’t like your drink too sweet. Most of the milk (tuk duh) available is either sterilized, canned or sweetened condensed.
For a drink on the hoof, iced sugar-cane juice (tuk umpow) is very refreshing and not actually that sweet. It’s sold everywhere from yellow carts equipped with a mangle through which the peeled canes are passed, sometimes with a piece of orange added for extra taste. Equally refreshing is the juice of a green coconut (tuk dhowng): the top is hacked off and you drink the juice before getting it cut in half so you can eat the soft, jelly-like flesh.
Fruit shakes (tuk krolok) are an important part of an evening’s consumption: juice stalls, recognizable by their fruit displays and blenders, set up in towns all over the country from the late afternoon. You can order a mixture of fruits to be juiced or just one or two; coconut milk, sugar syrup, condensed milk and shaved ice are also added, as is a raw egg (unless you specify otherwise – ot yoh pong mowan).
When not added to coffee or tea, milk (tuk duh) is sometimes drunk iced, perhaps with a bright red or green cordial added. Freshly made soya milk (tuk sun dike) is sold in the morning by street vendors; the green version is sweetened and thicker than the unsweetened white. Soya milk is also available canned, as is winter-melon tea, a juice made from the field melon that has a distinctive sweet, almost earthy taste.
Besides nightclubs and bars, most restaurants and night-market stalls serve beer (sraa bier). Cambodia’s national beer is Angkor, brewed by an Australian/Cambodian joint venture in Sihanoukville; it’s available in cans, large bottles and sometimes on draught, prices varying from around $1 for a glass of draught beer to around $2–2.50 for a large bottle. Tiger, VB, Beer Lao and ABC Stout are also readily available, and there are many more local brews. Even if already chilled, beer is often drunk with ice.
Spirits are generally only found in larger restaurants, nightclubs and Western bars. Imported wines are available in smarter restaurants and Western-oriented places, and can be bought in supermarkets and minimarkets. When not downing beer, Cambodians themselves usually prefer to stick to local, medicinal rice wines, which are available at stalls and shops where glasses of the stuff are ladled from large jars containing various plant or animal parts. Though quite sweet, they’re strong and barely palatable, but cheap. Another local brew is sugar-palm beer, sold and brewed straight from the bamboo tubes in which the juice is collected. It’s quite refreshing, and readily available in villages and from vendors in the towns; it’s also now available in tourist-oriented shops in nicely labelled bottles.
Most visitors to Cambodia pass through the nondescript little town of Skuon at some point in their travels. Located at the junction of NR6 and NR7 between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Kompong Cham, it’s one of the most important crossroads towns in Cambodia. What it’s really famous for, however, is its edible spiders – more precisely, a type of Asian tarantula, around 5cm across, known locally as ah pieng and considered something of a delicacy when deep-fried with a hint of salt and garlic. According to local gourmands they taste a bit like crunchy fried prawns and are best tackled as though eating a crab: pull off the legs and you can suck the flesh which comes away with them, though be wary of the body, as it can be unappetizingly slushy and bitter. Spiders also crop up around the country pickled in wine, a tonic especially favoured by pregnant women.
Quite how the practice of eating spiders began is something of a mystery. One theory suggests that it dates from the starvation years of Khmer Rouge rule, when desperate villagers began foraging for eight-legged snacks in the jungles of Kompong Thom province. Nowadays you’ll likely see platters piled high with spiders at restaurants in and around Skuon – a lot of buses stop here for a comfort break – giving you the chance to see, and perhaps even try, this unusual delicacy.
Although strict Cambodian Buddhists do have a vegetarian meal once every two weeks on offering days, Cambodians in general can’t understand why anyone who can afford meat or fish would not want to eat it.
The best way to get a vegetarian dish is to ask for your order to be cooked without meat (ot dak sait) or fish (ot dak trei); in principle, most stir-fries and soups can be done this way. You might be told that the dish is “not delicious” without meat, and the waiter may also come back a couple of times just to check he’s got it straight. However, to be sure that prawns, chicken, duck or even intestines aren’t substituted, or that a meat stock or fish sauce isn’t used, you’ll need to specify a whole list of things to avoid. Vegans will need to make sure that no eggs are included (ot yoh pong mowan) as these are widely used, but should have few problems avoiding dairy products, which are unlikely to be found outside Western restaurants.
In tourist centres one or two vegetarian restaurants have opened, while restaurants catering for foreigners will also have more choice and a better idea of what being a vegetarian means.
Cambodians eat just about everything, including insects. In the markets you’ll see big trays of grasshoppers, beetles and crickets, usually fried, sold by the bag and eaten like sweets; snails are also a popular market-stall snack. Spiders are a speciality of Skuon, while fried snakes are also a common sight, as are tiny sparrows (jarb jeyan), and other small birds, deep-fried and served whole, complete with tiny shrivelled head and claws. Frogs, meanwhile, are commonly used in stir-fries both in local markets and upmarket restaurants.
Crowned with distinctive mops of spiky leaves, sugar palms are of great importance to the rural Cambodian economy, with every part of the tree being put to good use. The sweet juice extracted from the palm’s flower-bearing stalk is either drunk fresh or fermented to produce palm beer, traditionally sold by hawkers, although nowadays also available in tourist centres and local supermarkets. Palm sugar, much used in Khmer cooking, is made by thickening the juice in a cauldron and then pouring it into cylindrical tubes to set, after which it resembles grainy honey-coloured fudge. Palm fruits, slightly larger than a cricket ball, have a tough, fibrous black coating containing juicy, delicately flavoured kernels, which are translucent white and have the consistency of jelly; they’re eaten either fresh or with syrup as a dessert.
Further sugar-palm products include the leaves, traditionally used as a form of paper and still used in thatch and to make wall panels, woven matting, baskets, fans and even packaging. The root of the tree is used in traditional medicine as a cure for stomachache and other ailments. Perhaps because the trees furnish so many other products, they are seldom cut for their wood, which is extremely durable. However, palm-wood souvenirs can be found in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, easily identifiable by their distinctive light-and-dark striped grain, and palm-wood furniture has become fashionable in some of the country’s boutique hotels.